“I think anyone with a pulse knows that this is the market to be interested in right now,” smiles Tom Didymus, Chief Operating Officer at regional games company Radical Forge. He’s part way through telling us why the UK’s gaming sector is a hotbed of creativity and financial reward – and listening to him talk about the topic in more detail, it’s clear that he’s right. “There’s very few things in the UK that are done as well as games – and it hasn’t just been during the COVID lockdown,” he explains. “Even through the last recession games companies in England were growing – and this latest crisis has shown us once again just how resilient they are. It’s a fantastic sector to work in.”
Based in Middlesbrough, these indie game developers have had a great few months. Having started life as a humble work-for-hire entity ‘developing releases for well-known platforms like Nintendo, PlayStation, Xbox and Oculus Rift, Radical Forge ultimately managed to pivot its workflow to create the company’s debut IP Bright Paw. Released in September 2020, it invited players into an intriguing and enigmatic puzzle game world that placed you in the fuzzy feet of Theo, an evil-supervillain’s pet cat. When his owner is unexpectedly killed, users must guide Theo through more than 70 levels of colourful head-scratchers to solve the crime and seek revenge. Before long, Bright Paw emerged as a quick hit with fans, setting Radical Forge on a path for continued success in a sector that’s adapted to the pandemic chaos.
“Games have really changed and evolved – it’s such a big industry now,” says Didymus. “During lockdown we saw more people than ever turn to gaming, especially audiences that traditionally wouldn’t have considered it. It’s been an interesting experience to have been a part of. Gaming has not just weathered the storm of COVID, it’s actually exploded,” he adds. “People have discovered how good games are – not just for overall experience but for your mental health. People that would never have considered themselves gamers are starting to get involved. It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.”
He’s not wrong. Before lockdown hit, the UK’s gaming sector was already a goliath. In 2019, it accounted for £2.9bn of gross value added to the UK economy and created over 27,000 jobs – many of which were based in the regions, outside of London. It’s also incredibly flexible – which came in particularly handy during a time where social distancing became the new norm. “When it came to working from home, we had everyone set up and working the very next day,” reveals Didymus. “We were lucky that we didn’t see any real negative impact – although we do miss seeing people,” he admits, “it’s a very social industry.”
Building on the sector’s already-strong foundations – and with a new batch of demographics tuning in over lockdown – the UK’s gaming industry is poised to continue to defy expectations. For Radical Forge, their time spent working with the biggest names in gaming – alongside the mentor-led support they’ve received as part of Creative Enterprise Evolve, Creative England’s scheme to help screen-sector businesses attract investment – puts them in an alluring position for post-pandemic success. “You learn a lot when you work on other people’s games – things don’t always go to plan,” chuckles Didymus, discussing how they honed their craft through early collaboration. “It’s always good to see where things can go wrong so that, hopefully, they don’t go wrong for you too. It’s nice to learn from others.”
As for the most useful thing they’ve taken away from their mentorship during this year’s Evolve programme? “Perspective,” answers Didymus. “It’s very easy to be focused on the day-to-day within any business. There’s always so much going on, especially when you’re growing rapidly. It’s hard to stop and look at the company from an external perspective and that’s what Creative England – and especially the mentors they put us in touch with – have been able to provide.” Seeking out the same type of peer or mentor advice is definitely something worth pursuing – and it’s easier to find than you might think, says Didymus. “As long as you’re asking for help or advice, there are people who are willing to freely give you their time, at any level. We’ve had help from people that have incredibly busy day-jobs but they’re willing to stop and have a chat. It’s a very accessible sector.”
With Bright Paw quickly finding its crowd (“We make games for people to enjoy – so mission accomplished from that perspective,” smiles Didymus), Radical Forge are already hard at work developing their as-yet-undisclosed sophomore release. While their story is one of success, it’s hardly unique – with countless small game-dev companies across the UK currently hard at work shifting that balance of work-for-hire commitments and own IP creation. Didymus’s top-tip? “Honestly? Just do it,” he says candidly. “It’s going to be painful, you’re going to get it wrong and there’s going to be things that you learn as you go. We built Bright Paw whilst doing other people’s projects and we were working after hours to make it happen,” he says. “It’s not the only way to do it – there’s plenty of people willing to fund the right ideas, so keep having conversations – but if I have any advice to give, it’s just do it. It’s now or never!”
Creative Enterprise Evolve is open for applications, learn more and apply before 7th July.